Who is Mr. Medved’? #RussianProverbs about Bear

Vinni Pukh aka Winnie-the-Pooh
Vinni Pukh aka Winnie-the-Pooh

This post is an introduction to the post I’m currently writing – on Russia’s archetypal image as a bear. Some of the facts seemed too specific and I decided to create a separate post dealing with medved’ (Russian word for bear) and proverbs related to this animal.

The word medvе́d’ (медведь) consists of two parts: *medu-/medv- (i.e. honey) and *ěd- (to eat). The reason why this animal was referred to indirectly was that bear’s ‘real’ name was tabooed. Thus, medved’ is an euphemism which can can literally translated as [he who] eats honey. Calling a medved’ by his real name was probably seen as an invocation of the Bear which was obviously undesirable (unless your name is Christopher Robin and the bear you want to see is Winnie-the-Pooh).

Vinni Pukh aka Winnie-the-Pooh

By the way, there is an interesting correlation between certain Russian names and a bear. For example, Russian surname Toptygin (cf. toptat’ – to trample) is at the same time bear’s alias (or vice versa). Similarly, Mikhailo Potapych (name and patronymic correspondingly) can be both as well – Mikhail (cf. Michael) Potapovich (i.e. son of Potap; Potapych being a vernacular version of Potapovich). Diminutive forms of the name Mikhail Misha and Mishka are also bear’s aliases.

Ivan Shishkin, Konstantin Savitsky - Morning in a Pine Forest, 1889
Ivan Shishkin, Konstantin Savitsky – Morning in a Pine Forest, 1889

My Top 10 Russian Proverbs about Bear:

(there are too many of them so I picked out my favourite INPO)
  1. a donkey is known for his ears, a bear is known for his claws and a fool is known for his speeches;
  2. a bear is wrong in that he killed a cow, a cow is wrong in that she went to the forest;
  3. even a big bear suffers from a little mosquito;
  4. a bear is malicious but he doesn’t eat his children;
  5. do not divide the pelt of an unkilled bear (cf. don’t count your chickens before they hatch);
  6. bears are bad neighbours (medvedi plokhiye sosedi);
  7. a bear is not a cow’s friend (brat means brother in Russian but here it means friend, mate, etc.);
  8. a bear stepped on his/her ear (said about someone who has no ear for music but sings regardless);
  9. do not be brave at a bear, be brave with a bear (i.e. in bear’s presence; cf. it’s one thing to flourish and another to fight);
  10. [I] ran from the wolf but ran into a bear (cf. out of the frying pan and into the fire).


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